More than Workers, Less than Bosses: Participatory Organizing in Five Buenos Aires Worker Coops
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It’s impossible to understand how to organize cooperatively without focusing on ‘sexual difference’, the French philosopher Luce Irigaray’s category for what has not yet been thought within our symbolic structures, but which we must think if we are to confront how patriarchy and hierarchy mutually reinforce each other. An absence of attention to sexual difference in favour of a belief that both women and men can occupy the place of the sexually indifferent individual despite the presence of patriarchy, a belief which maintains that symbolically women are the same as men and experience the processes of organizing in exactly the same way, obscures rather than clarifies how we as women and men might organize in participatory, contiguous or side by side ways to get things done. Without confronting this ruse of the [masculine] neutral, or the rhetoric of the individual without a sex who is in reality male, without ensuring that cooperation means the contiguous organizing of sexual difference next to sexual difference, the female subject next to the male subject who equally act on and define the world, hierarchy inevitably reasserts itself, and cooperation, with its emphasis on the full participation of equals and the equal involvement of all, is subverted. Given my focus on these symbolic categories of [sexually indifferent] sameness and [sexual] difference as they underlie our assumptions about how we can achieve the egalitarian workplace, what interested me in my study of five worker cooperatives in Buenos Aires in May 2006 were two inextricably intertwined questions concerning how organizing cooperatively could be achieved in the face of hierarchy and patriarchy. First, how comprehensively did the men and women workers think about hierarchy in all its manifestations? What did they mean organizationally when they talked about equality and workers as equals, as ‘more than workers, less than bosses’? How did the women and men working in these cooperatives struggle to embody in their organizing processes and strategies the ethos of cooperation—learned as they said ‘in the tent’--among and between equals who were not the same, who were different, and who experienced the processes of organizing differently? As the workers often proudly informed me, these were worker coops where all decision makers were elected and everyone was paid the same. It wasn’t only the ‘one member, one vote’ enshrined in the general assemblies and in the elections of coordinators, but that ‘we are all members of the cooperative’: all jobs were equally necessary, all were equally valuable, and therefore all were worthy of being paid the same. But elected general assemblies and coordinators and equal pay for all jobs were only part of how worker cooperatives struggled to interpret what cooperation meant in practice. Secondly, how did the workers confront how patriarchy circulates in these ostensibly egalitarian ways of organizing, where everybody was treated the same, everyone could be elected to positions of authority, everyone was paid the same? More specifically, how did the worker coops deal with [sexual] difference, that women and men are not substitutable--that they are equals who are different, and who experience differently the processes of organizing? How did the coops deal with this unacknowledged maleness of the supposedly sexually neutral or sexually indifferent individual, what Irigaray calls the unacknowledged reign of the masculine neutral, which must be confronted if cooperative organizing, with its emphasis on full participation, full involvement, is to succeed? How did the women and men challenge not only the hierarchy which cooperative organizing seeks to dismantle, but the patriarchal privilege that circulates simultaneously in our organizing processes, and which, unless confronted, inevitably reconstitutes hierarchical modes of organizing? These are the questions which will guide this study.